Grammatically speaking: Different approaches to grammar

When it comes to communicating with each other, grammar plays a role of the utmost importance; without grammar, we would be unable to construct intelligible sentences. However, as an active part of any language, grammar is bound to evolve with time, and not everyone experiences this change in the same way. Find out if you side with prescriptivists or descriptivists.


Whose side are you on?

Imagine you are queuing in a supermarket, and you notice a sign above the till that reads “10 items or less” (instead of “fewer”, which, as English grammar books will tell you, should be applied for quantifiable, or countable, objects).

Now, if reading that sign made you want to throw your groceries out of the window, chances are you have prescriptive views. Linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is the idea according to which a language should have one proper form, with an established set of rules that should not be transgressed, neither in writing nor in speaking. In the eyes of prescriptivists, breaking these rules equals being in the wrong. A few centuries ago, when writing started gaining importance as a means of communication, a standardised language had to be created, as a way for people in different parts of a country to understand each other. Unsurprisingly, the language used by people in power, or high in society, was the one chosen to fulfil this role. With time, it became recognised as the “proper” language: linguistic prescription was born.

If, on the other hand, the admittedly incorrect sign doesn’t bother you, you are most likely to be a descriptivist. Indeed, descriptive linguistics, as the name indicates, describes language phenomena rather than advocating them. Descriptivists recognise the fact that language belongs to its speakers, and that it is bound to change: they believe content is more important than form when it comes to sharing information. In other words, as long as the person you are speaking to can understand you, proper use of grammar is not of prime importance. To descriptivists, breaking the rules is simply evolution.

So in the end, who’s right?

Although it might seem that the two schools of thought contradict each other, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and we need both of them in order to study linguistics as well as to learn new languages. According to the web-based publication Ethnologue, there were as many as 942 million English speakers in the world in 2015, but only a little over one third were native speakers! The remaining 600 million are scattered across hundreds of countries, with their own culture, references, and accents, which inevitably get incorporated into the way English is spoken and written. Hundreds, if not thousands of different world Englishes exist, and descriptivism studies all of them as an observer.

However, in terms of language learning, prescription has the advantage of creating a standardised language, even if it does get renewed every so often – let’s consider the fact that the proper spelling of “bird” was “brid” in Old English. This standardisation not only makes communication a lot easier when travelling to other countries, it has also allowed English to become the “Lingua Franca” in most countries, meaning it is the language the most widely used between speakers from different countries.

Which school should translators choose?

As a marketing translator, the best choices come from observation. The grammar used by your client reflects their personality, their brand, and they want all of their customers to experience this brand in the same way, no matter which language they speak. However, what could be acceptable in one language is not necessarily acceptable in another. It is thus very important to adapt the tone and grammar in the target language. Read their content carefully and ask yourself, “Do they use abbreviations? Are they making up words to suit their products?” If so, you can feel free to be creative in your target language if it sounds acceptable. If not, always think about you own experience as a customer to think about what your target audience might expect from this brand.

Always remember, choosing words is like choosing an outfit. Do not translate a suit into shorts and flip-flops!

French idioms about the sea

A sea of French idioms

With summer only one month away and the sun making a comeback in Cornwall, it’s difficult not to feel the call of the sea. This is why Anja is taking Team AJT on an exciting surf lesson today. So let’s celebrate the beauty of the Newquay seaside with idioms from across the sea. It will also be the very first time surfing for most of the team so wish us luck!

Here is a list of water-related French idioms you might not know:

Un vieux loup de mer = An old sea bass

This idiom dates back to the eighteenth century and, surprisingly, it does not refer to the fish but to quite a different animal: the wolf (the French word for a sea bass being loup de mer and the one for wolf being loup), an animal that was then seen as solitary. So you may ask yourself what the link with the sea is in this idiom… Well, there are two possible interpretations for this one. Some will say that sailors, as wolves, lead a solitary life while at sea and therefore would have trouble fitting in when they return. Others will argue that this relates more to the courage and determination of sailors.

Nowadays, the idiom un vieux loup de mer is used to name a hardened and experienced man, who can sometimes also be somewhat bad-tempered.

Rester le bec dans l’eau = Being left with one’s beak in the water

If you’ve ever been left high and dry, this is an idiom for you. Here, the bec, or beak, refers to the mouth of a person who’s left with nothing after strongly desiring and being promised something for a very long time. While this is not certain, eau, or water, could also refer to another idiom: mettre l’eau à la bouche or make one’s mouth water.

Nager entre deux eaux = Swim between two seas

Another idiom inspired by sailing, this one is a reference to boats sailing between two seas and which, while being tossed around, still manage to stay on course.

Nager entre deux eaux is used to talk about someone who, in times of conflicts, doesn’t side with anyone and remains neutral. Alternatively, this idiom can also have a negative meaning when it is used to refer to a person who is hesitant and isn’t honest about their thoughts.

Une mer d’huile = A sea of oil

Une mer d’huile is a calm sea, without any waves. This idiom dates back to Ancient Greece, when Greeks used to pour oil into the sea. As oil and water don’t mix, the oil would stay on the surface of the sea, which, as a result, gave the impression of a calmer sea.

Se noyer dans un verre d’eau = Drowning in a glass of water

Back in eighteenth-century France, to say that someone se noierait dans un verre d’eau was to refer to a person as so unlucky that they could have actually died from drowning in a glass of water. Today though, it is used to talk about a person who is incapable of facing any hardship, even the smallest one, without feeling overwhelmed.


For more French and German idioms, have a look at our past blog posts Utterly butterly: My favourite 5 French idioms all about butter and German idioms: It’s all about the sausage.

creative writing for translators - tone of voice

Creative writing exercise for translators: tone of voice

Tone of voice is a big part of our translation work. In order to accurately convey our client’s message in another language, we need to understand who they are themselves, who their potential customers are and how they want to come across to those potential customers.

When working with bigger brands, we often receive a very well-defined style guide which details the tone of voice and even gives examples of ‘buyer personas’, which is very helpful for us as translators. But even without a style guide, we need to be able to look at a source text, identify the tone of voice and apply it consistently to our translations.

Tone of voice is more than just a vague notion of ‘wanting to come across friendly/sarcastic/helpful etc.’ It is about what vocabulary we use, whether we use an active or passive voice, how a piece of text is structured and much more. If you’d like to read up about tone of voice, then this article from Distilled is a good starting point.

But that’s enough theory for now, let’s get practicing. Here is our tone of voice writing exercise for translators:

Grab your notepad and pen and head to a coffee shop, bar, restaurant or hotel lounge near you. (The exercise takes roughly an hour).

Choose two of the scenarios below and describe the place you are at in around 200 words for each scenario. Write in your mother tongue.

  • Scenario 1: You are the marketing manager of XXX and you are writing this text for a brochure that will advertise XXX. Tell the reader why it’s worth coming here and what they can expect.
  • Scenario 2: You are a critic for a lifestyle magazine. You have a sarcastic tone – you might like the place, or you might hate it, it’s up to you, but describe your surroundings with sarcasm in your voice.
  • Scenario 3: You are a first time visitor at XXX and you are writing a review on TripAdvisor. You absolutely love the place, you admire the décor, the food is to die for. You want to live here. Write your review with love and admiration in your heart.
  • Scenario 4: You are a council worker and your job is to write a subjective summary of XXX. Describe the layout, the staff, the food, whatever catches your eye, but write in a neutral tone that doesn’t show any emotion or any like or dislike.

Happy writing! Let us know how it went and feel free to share your musings with us. We’d love to see what you came up with.

Interested in more creative writing exercises for translators? Check out this exercise on how to add empathy to a text, or this exercise about how to write a marketing text to a brief.


Creative writing for translators: adding empathy to a text

Last week we looked at writing to a brief – how we can write in a particular way to influence how the reader thinks or feels. The way we do this is by adapting our tone of voice. In this week’s creative hour we will adapt the tone of voice of an existing piece of text. You could do this exercise with any kind of text in your specific mother tongue, but here is a brief to get you started:

Read this article about Chinese actress Angelababy published on the BBC website yesterday: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-34536268

You might feel a lot of different things reading this article for the first time. I sort of swayed between feeling somewhat sympathetic for the actress (not because of her court case, but her husband’s bizarre comments to ‘defend her’) and feeling cynical about a world where people get a court-ordered prodding to prove their face is genuinely their face. Watching the YouTube video below is not required, but provides a bit of extra context:

Your particular brief today is to add empathy to the article. You want the reader to feel empathetic towards the actress, to sympathise with her story and her point of view. Your standpoint is that the actress is the victim in all this, she has been unjustly accused of having plastic surgery, when she clearly hasn’t. Don’t change the actual facts of the story. Before you get started, you might want to read this short article about the difference between being empathetic, sympathetic and sentimental.

Have fun writing! Want to share your musings with us? Feel free to send us your creations. We’ll pick the best ones and publish them on this blog post with a link to your translator profile.

Happy creative Friday afternoon!



Creative writing for translators: Writing a marketing text to a brief

We’ve received some wonderful feedback from our translator colleagues about our blog on creative writing for translators,  so we thought we would publish this week’s task so you can join us and try it out for yourself! This week, we will focus on writing to a brief.

What to do

Find a hotel somewhere close-by and go in for an afternoon coffee. Take a pen and paper.

The task

You have been contracted by the hotel to write a beautiful and informative short article about the hotel’s bar/lounge area that they want to promote to their customers. Write the article in your mother tongue.

Medium & word count

Your description will be published on the hotel’s website, and also in a printed welcome guide in the guest rooms. There is space for roughly 300 words.

Who are you talking to?

You are addressing visitors of the hotel’s website who are browsing the site before their stay, as well as hotel guests reading the welcome guide. You are addressing both business and leisure travellers (think about their motives for staying in this hotel and why they would benefit from visiting the bar/lounge).

What are you trying to achieve?

You want to draw the reader’s attention to this area of the hotel and encourage them to use it during their stay.

What are you saying? 

Describe your surroundings: the interior design (style, genre, chic, minimalist, etc), the atmosphere (mellow, professional, any music playing? etc), what can you do here, what’s the menu like, what can you see when you look out of the window?

What do you want the reader to think/feel?

You want to create a picture of the bar/lounge area in their mind through vivid and positive descriptions. You want your readers to think ‘That sounds nice’, ‘That’s worth a look’ or ‘I like the sound of the menu’.

How should you come across?

Positive and inviting without ‘selling’.

Why would they believe you?

You are writing from the hotel’s perspective. The text needs to feel honest and unpretentious so that the reader feels they can trust your judgement. You definitely don’t want to make things up or embellish the truth. Once they go and see the bar/lounge area for themselves, they don’t want to feel disappointed.

Have fun writing! Want to share your musings with us? Feel free to send us your creations. We’ll pick the best ones and publish them on this blog post with a link to your translator profile 🙂

Happy creative Friday afternoon!

To be continued … creative writing exercises to nurture translation talent

Inspired by the concept of Feeding – a brilliant idea from the copywriting power house that is Stranger Collective – we recently introduced a ‘creative final hour’ in our office. Every Friday, we like to use the last hour in the office (or out of the office!) to actively broaden our horizons, research language-related topics, share our linguistic knowledge and get involved in some creative writing exercises … a fun way to further improve our writing styles, explore new vocabulary and generally get the creative juices flowing.

I am always impressed by the excellent level of English that our non-native translators produce, and by their sheer creativity, so I thought I’d share some of our musings. This first story is written by Caro, our current translation intern from Luxembourg. She used a ‘random first line’ generator on writingexercises.com to give her the beginnings of a sentence and then she had 30 minutes to write a short story. Her story is a nod to one of her favourite authors, Jasper Fforde.

Here we go:

He didn’t want to go out on such a night but then they were only in town for one day. Who’d have thought that the dodos would be coming to this tiny hamlet – of all places. But the posters on the wooden lampposts confirmed it: “Dodo Day in Donkington-on-Dobbles”.

He looked around his place; was there anything that he could take for the dodos? He knew they liked fudge. But you weren’t allowed to give them any of that, as it would make their beaks all sticky. And dodos are of course notorious for their aversion to bath time. There were some nurdles that he’d collected at the beach the other day. He’d take those. Maybe the dodos liked all the different colours. They could even use them in their nest-making. So that was settled then.

Off he went to the marketplace, where the big tent had been set up. The entrance was right next to the central fountain, the one with all the koi in it. A woman with white hair was sitting on a small plastic chair at a small plastic table in front of the big red tent. Apparently she was the designated doorkeeper for the night. A roll of faded pink tickets and a cigar box were placed on the table in front of her. He held out a handful of coins and she picked out a few ducats. Then she tore off a ticket and handed it over to him. He took a look at it. It said: “MINI GOLF – One Person – Not transferable”. He looked at the white haired lady: “Erm … ‘xuse us – why does it say ‘Mini golf’ on this ticket. I was under the impression that this was the dodo tent.” “’Tis” was all she said. As he continued staring at her, she expanded her answer: “It’s an interactive show.” He decided that continuing to stare at her was not a good idea anymore now. He blinked a couple of times instead. The white haired lady seemed to catch on to the fact that he was a bit hard of understanding, so she went on: “You get to see the dodos, the dodos get to watch you play mini golf. It’s a win-win situation.” He thought that at that point their conversation had found its natural end, so he thanked her for the ticket and turned towards the tent. At least her explanations gave him some food for thought while he was waiting for the tent to be opened up. TO BE CONTINUED …

The idea is to continue with the story every week … let’s see where it takes us 🙂

Another Friday, another instalment of Caro’s story:

Outside the cabin, the wind howled through the trees, while inside, the old woman’s fire was nearly out. If she found enough firewood, it would keep her warm for the rest of the night and possibly until midday the next day. So she hopped into her woolly loafers and headed outside. As soon as she had opened the door, a fresh gust of wind blew into her face. It carried a nice, sweet smell that she tried to identify. Candyfloss! She could not remember when she had last smelled candyfloss. Probably the last time she had gone to the village fair – might have been well over a decade ago. And where was this scent coming from? She looked towards the village, which lay at the foot of the ben where her little cabin stood. Something seemed to be happening in Donkington. She could make out a big red something where the marketplace was. Only the center of the village was illuminated. The outskirts were slowly being devoured by the encroaching darkness. The good burghers of Donkington must have left their houses to have a look at the big red something in the marketplace. Should she…? It was awfully cold and she really did not want to go out on such a night, but if there was an event in the village, chances were that there would be a few cosy fires on the go.

So that was settled then.

When she arrived at the marketplace, she realised that what she had seen from the cabin was a big red tent stretching from the bakery all the way to the koi-fountain. There was a young man standing right next to the entrance of the tent. He looked like the sort of fella who would know what goes on in big red tents that pop up out of nowhere in the middle of the night and keep you from going out to get firewood. She would ask him. TO BE CONTINUED…

Another Friday, another instalment of Caro’s story – the penultimate chapter:

The urge to interrupt him before he had finished was overwhelming. But the old woman thought it would be impolite to approach the young man straight away, as he seemed to be busy alternately staring at a slip of paper in his hand and squinting into the middle distance. He eventually turned on his heels and sat down on the edge of the koi fountain. That was her cue. She walked towards him, past a woman with white hair who was sat at a little table and playing a game of Patience. Before she could reach him though, she noticed an advertising poster that was tacked to the tent cloth.

She took a closer look. “Dodos…” she murmured. It had been years since she’d heard them mentioned. Of course, when she was a child, they’d had loads of dodos at their place. Her favourite had been Bobo – not her choice of name, she always hastened to add. If she’d had the choice, she would have called him something nice, like Percivall. But she had gotten Bobo – name and all – from the local bakery. That is to say, Mrs Doe, the baker’s wife used to own Bobo when he was little. But Mr Doe soon got fed up with him, as he had to throw out too many pies and pastries that had dodo-footprints on them. So the old woman’s parents (she wasn’t an old woman at the time, she was actually a young girl back then) had adopted Bobo. The family already owned some fifty dodos who were roaming freely in the grounds around their mansion. One more or less wouldn’t make a difference.

And now there were Dodos once again. TO BE CONTINUED…

Here we have the final instalment of Caro’s story! Caro will be heading back to Heidelberg University this week and she will be sorely missed here at AJT:

It was just for one night. This might be her last chance to see them – because she was getting on a bit, if she was honest.

“Are you going to go see them?” It was the young man who was sitting on the koi fountain. The old woman put on her thinking face. She had been asking herself the same question and had known that she would not be able to make up her mind. So use of the thinking face was designed to delay things at least a little bit longer. But the young man continued on his quest for an answer or conversation or whatever he was looking for. “There’s minigolf as well!”, he said enthusiastically. He tried this strategy now; if he pretended to know what he was talking about, then maybe the ensuing conversation would give him some clues as to the nature of the show that he was letting himself in for. “Minigolf!”, the old woman said in surprise. “Well, I suppose then I should really, shouldn’t I?” She had no idea what the young man was talking about. Probably one of those new things that young people got up to. Unwilling to show her ignorance of those things, she decided to go along with it; she would find out eventually what the young man was talking about.

So the young man’s strategy had not quite worked out for him.

“Lady and gentleman…”, the white-haired woman interrupted. She apparently had finished her card game and was now standing at the tent entrance, with both hands on a big red bobble, attached to a long string dangling from the entrance. “… the show is now ready for you!”, she said. The old woman and the young man looked at each other. They were the only people standing at the entrance of this big top. Was no one else going to see this show?

The white-haired woman pulled at the bobble.

The red, plushy curtain lifted.

The old woman and the young man entered the tent. THE END

Would you like to spin a yarn and continue the story? Use the random line generator and put pen to paper… it’s good fun 🙂



french idioms about butter

Utterly butterly: My favourite 5 French idioms all about butter

The main rule of French cuisine is that everything tastes better when smothered in butter, absolutely everything! Do you know why the French (and myself included of course), actually eat escargots? This chewy piece of rubber merely serves as an excuse to fancily sip on tiny cups full of buttery extravagance. So, if butter can actually turn slimy snails into a delicacy, I think it’s high time we paid tribute to this godsend of food… with language! Here’s a list of my favourite butter-related French idioms:

Compter pour du beurre – “To count for butter”

This French idiom stems from the outdated expression “de beurre” (made of butter), used to describe something worthless. Butter? Worthless? How dare you?!

Historically speaking, the French upper class only went crazy for butter during the 19th century: before that, this product was extremely cheap and only consumed by the lower classes. Therefore, if something “counts as butter”, it is worthless. This expression has childish ring to it, so please refrain from using it for your business meetings.

It is actually a 2-in-1 expression that can also be used interrogatively to voice your frustration from being left out of conversation: “Et moi, je compte pour du beurre?! literally this means “What about me?! Do I count as butter?”, which is similar to “What am I? Chopped liver?” in English.

Et ta sœur, elle bat le beurre ? – “And your sister, is she churning butter?

Have you ever been annoyed at someone’s nosy questions? Well, this is the perfect comeback in French. The core idea is that it is quite rude of someone to ask about a close relative, like a sister. In other words, if you knew a thing or two about politeness, you would not ask such a question.

This expression is the result of a two-step process: albeit it first appeared at the end of the 19th century, it only consisted of “Et ta soeur?”, which could be roughly translated as “It appears to me that you are crossing the line, my good man.” For improved effect, “elle bat le beurre” was later added as a rhyming device that rolls off the tongue quite nicely, turning this saying into pure gold. There was absolutely no need to do so, but we just can’t help it: butter improves everything.

Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre – “He didn’t invent the butter slicer.”

Behold the best invention of all time:

French butter slicer

French butter slicer

What is a “fil à couper le beurre”, you might ask. I was actually shocked to hear that this nifty device was not a thing outside of French borders. It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a very simple device used to slice blocks of butter.

You can figure out from the picture that it didn’t take much effort to come up with a metal wire wrapped around two wooden sticks. So, if you assume that someone is not even able to come up with such a simple piece of engineering, you are implying that he’s not “the brightest crayon in the box”.

So why not build your own “fil à couper le beurre” to impress at your next dinner party?

Beurré comme un p’tit LU – “To be full of butter like a little LU”

A “petit beurre” (small butter) or “ptit LU” is a famous French biscuit created at the end of the 19th century by Lefèvre-Utile, a leading manufacturer usually referred to as “LU”. Owing to its distinctive taste and shape, this product has since become an evergreen that is still to this day every French kid’s favourite snack.

A "petit beurre" - a butter biscuit

A “petit beurre” – a butter biscuit

This does not really explain why, after a long night at the pub, one of your friends might say that you are “full of butter like a biscuit”. No, even French butter has its limit: it does not make you tipsy… unfortunately. But the word “beurré” (full of butter) sounds very similar to the word “bourré” (full of alcohol), especially if you try to pronounce it after a few pints.

Have you ever noticed that a drunken person shares certain similarities with a big chunk of butter? Well the French have! This French idiom suggests that both are somewhat greasy and have a tendency to be soft or “mou”, which in French is a synonym for slow.

Mettre du beurre dans ses épinards – “To put butter in one’s spinach”

Ever since the French upper class realised the full potential of butter, it has become a symbol of wealth, and there’s no denying that it is extremely ‘rich’! Putting butter in one’s spinach refers to a source of extra income helping to make ends meet. In other words, having butter (or money) improves your spinach (or living conditions). See, everything tastes better when smothered in butter, even life itself!

For more food for thought, check out our blog post German idioms: It’s all about the sausage.

Top 5 copywriting tips for translators

Translating marketing texts can be a tricky thing. We need to relay the information from the source text and make sure it sounds beautiful in the target language at the same time. Here are our top 5 tips for good copywriting that also apply to translation.

1.    Research your audience

Before you start translating, find out who the translated texts are aimed at. What’s your target audience? Is the copy written for other businesses or end customers? What’s the age group? If your audience is young and tech-savvy, using a formal tone of voice may alienate them. If you’re dealing with businesses and professionals, writing too informally can cost you clients. Browse your customer’s website and ask for a style guide if you didn’t receive one. That way you’ll always hit the right tone of voice!

2.    Avoid nominal style

Nouns slow down the pace of your copy and your text can feel stilted. Check which nouns you really need and which can be replaced by verbs. Using more verbs loosens up the text and feels more natural to the reader.

E.g.: Terry made the decision to learn French. > Terry decided to learn French.

3.    Use the active voice

Active sentences engage the reader. Your text feels livelier and is easier to read. Passive sentences are usually longer and reveal important information only at the very end.

E.g.: The text was translated by Terry. > Terry translated the text.

4.    Keep sentences short

The rule of thumb says if you can’t quite remember how the sentence started when you’re at the end of it, it’s definitely too long. Some people have a knack for bulky sentences that span over many lines. That may sound clever in a scientific piece of research. But it will exceed the attention span of most other audiences. If you want to engage your readers, keep it short. This may mean that one sentence turns into two translated sentences.

5.    Before you submit your translations, read them out loud

It may feel a little silly at first, but this is a great way to test the readability of your translation. If you stumble over complicated constructions, or you run out of breath before the end of the sentence, chances are you need to simplify your text.

For more inspiration on marketing translation, take a look at our blog post Creative translation: Your marketing message on everyone’s lips.